Tunes. Bond Tunes. Or Music to Dig James Bond By

To say the James Bond franchise is unique is a major understatement. It has so many cool things attached to it. The world’s most famous English civil servant was the brainchild of novelist Ian Fleming, who himself has so much story attached to him. There’s a good 2014 BBC miniseries that offers a somewhat fictionalized account of his clandestine activities during World War 2. Through these experiences he devised the Bond character and made him a part of the “00” section – a section comprised of operatives in Her Majesty’s Secret Service trusted enough to be allowed to kill opponents at their own discretion. The books Fleming wrote – starting with 1953’s “Casino Royale” – were initially seen as sensational pulp paperbacks but soon earned a certain cachet in the public consciousness. Fleming eventually wrote 12 Bond novels and they are a wonderful part of popular culture in and of themselves. In 1962, the phenomenon reached sensational heights with the first James Bond feature film, “Dr. No”, with Scotsman Sean Connery chosen to play Bond. The films really created the template of all things ‘Bond’: exotic locales, beautiful women, fine dining, cocktails, fast cars, dangerous adventure and music. One of the coolest things about the ‘world of Bond’ is that it has it’s very own soundtrack.

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United Artists was savvy enough to issue soundtrack albums right from the start.

“Dr. No” features the song that has come to be known as “James Bond Theme” over the opening credits and variations of it are used throughout the film. There has been a lot of debate throughout the years over the actual origin of “James Bond Theme”. Suffice it to say that it has been credited as having been written by Monty Norman.  The producers of the first film hired Norman to do the score but were apparently unhappy with the arrangement of the main theme and had John Barry come in to provide a fresh take on it. Barry – born November 3rd, like me – had some success in the late ’50’s with his own group, the John Barry Seven, and then got into film scoring, eventually being called upon to work on the Bond theme as heard in “Dr. No”. Barry has also claimed authourship of the song and twice it has gone to court with the ruling going in Norman’s favour and Norman – still with us at 89 – has been receiving royalties for the song for 60 years. Historically, we have to look at it this way: Monty Norman wrote “James Bond Theme” and that is significant. John Barry arranged it to make it sound like the song we all hear in our heads and that, too, is significant. One thing is for certain; the song is fantastic in and of itself, even apart from the Bond mystique. I love what David Arnold, another Bond film composer, says about the theme: “(it had a) bebop-swing vibe coupled with that vicious, dark, distorted electric guitar, definitely an instrument of rock ‘n’ roll … it represented everything about the character you would want: It was cocky, swaggering, confident, dark, dangerous, suggestive, sexy, unstoppable. And he did it in two minutes”. Norman, it should be noted, went on to do nothing. Barry subsequently scored 11 Bond films and many other movies including “Born Free”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “King Kong (1976)”, “Body Heat”, “The Cotton Club”, “Out of Africa”, “Dances With Wolves” and “Chaplin”. Barry won five Academy Awards and four Grammys for his film work.

The second film in the series was “From Russia, With Love”. While this film doubled the gross of “Dr. No” and people really began to take notice of the franchise, the music from the films had not yet cemented itself into popular culture. Subsequently, the theme from “From Russia, With Love” by English singer Matt Monro (Sir George Martin said Monro was the best singer he ever worked with) was an excellent if somewhat generic and low-key song. And while it was not featured over the opening credits, as became the norm, it was nominated for a Golden Globe. Where things really began to take off for the franchise was the third film, 1964’s “Goldfinger”. This marked the first time John Barry wrote the title song and scored the film as well. This was also the first time the theme was performed over the opening credits. Welsh singer Shirley Bassey had a Top Ten hit in the States with the title song. There are singers that sing to the back rows and then there is Shirley Bassey. She sings past the back rows and out the door. The guy drying his clothes in the laundromat across the street feels the breeze from her belting. The soundtrack album went to #1 Stateside and now the music had become a major element of the mystique. Speaking of Welsh belters, Tom Jones lent his formidable talents to “Thunderball” a year later. Two notable recordings from consecutive films with odd titles for songs. I’ve always thought the lyricists had a tough time writing these songs: “so, he strikes like Thunderball”? 1967 was a big year for Nancy Sinatra so the producers brought her in to sing the theme for “You Only Live Twice”. Nancy became the first American to interpret a Bond theme.

Starting around the time of the success of “Goldfinger” in 1964, “spy jazz” became a sub-genre. The strength and popularity of the Bond themes and the scores of John Barry gave rise to a host of imitators. Other spy movies and television shows emerged and it was essential to have attached to them a soundtrack full of noisy brass and sinister guitar riffs. United Artists, the studio that produced the Bond films, released the soundtracks to the Bond films on their record label and also commissioned like-sounding records that would feed the public’s appetite for ‘Bond-y’ sounds. They released two volumes of “Music to Read James Bond By”, consisting of artists on their roster performing some music from and inspired by the films. I’ve been fortunate enough to have found the first one on vinyl. The soundtracks and themes from “Our Man Flint”, “Charade”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” and others also became part of the genre. Many instrumental albums by artists performing what today we would call lounge music also appeared, referencing Barry’s incidental music and coming up with their own contributions. Even surf music got into the act with the Menn releasing “Ian Fleming Theme”. Legendary band leader Count Basie put out the very brassy and jazzy “Basie Meets Bond” in 1966 which featured the themes from the movies and also songs from the scores. In 1967, a “non-canon” Bond spoof was released called “Casino Royale” which featured the hit title track which was performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Music mogul Alpert showed up years later for the soundtrack of the other non-canon film, “Never Say Never Again”. Herb produced his wife, Lani Hall, singing the theme. An alternate theme was written for the film “Thunderball” and was performed by Dionne Warwick. At the time, an Italian journalist had dubbed Bond “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and a song was written for and recorded by Miss. Warwick with this title but not used. The iconic “James Bond Theme” as been covered countless times, notably by prolific purveyor of spy jazz Leroy Holmes, Glen Campbell, Brian Setzer, the Ventures, the Art of Noise and Moby.

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The “spy genre” took off in the mid-’60’s. Themes and music was an essential component.

A new era of Bond started in 1973 with Roger Moore taking over the role for “Live and Let Die”. Here we have what is loosely referred to as the worst film and the best theme. Paul McCartney got the call to write the title track which he co-wrote with his wife, Linda. His old buddy, Beatles producer George Martin, scored the film. Oddly, once the song had been written, the producers hired obscure singer B.J. Arnau to sing the theme over the titles. Martin, having already recorded Paul’s version, was surprised, having assumed that the Paul McCartney and Wings recording would be used. In the end, Paul insisted, stating he would withdraw his composition if his band’s recording was not utilized. Thankfully, the producers acquiesced. This became the first rock song to be used as a theme for a Bond film and the recording is stellar. Martin’s freight-train orchestration is absolutely exhilarating. The interplay of the guitar and the brass is striking while the pianist’s left hand is riveting and ominous. At the time, it was the most successful Bond theme, reaching #2 in the US. The song was nominated for an Oscar but lost to “The Way We Were” (C’mon!!). Years later, it was covered by Guns ‘n’ Roses who wisely did not tinker with the song and kept Martin’s orchestral assault basically intact. Sidebar: the mysterious B.J. Arnau sings a watered-down version in a night club scene in the film. In 1977, “The Spy Who Loved Me” was released with a score by the popular composer Marvin Hamlisch. The soundtrack is sadly dated and generally reviled because of it’s obvious disco leanings. This film marks the first time that the main theme song bore a different title than the film. It’s probably for the best they didn’t try to write a song called “The Spy Who Loved Me”. The song used over the opening titles was “Nobody Does it Better” and was recorded by Carly Simon. It is an excellent song featuring wonderful piano and was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Song but lost to “You Light Up My Life” (C’mon!!). It was a Top Ten hit all over the world. Still, hearing the line “like heaven above me, the spy who loved me…” always brings a chuckle. The excellent Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” premiered in 1981 and Scotland’s Sheena Easton sang another Academy Award-nominated theme. Easton sang this song – another huge international hit – on screen during the opening titles, the only time this has happened in a Bond film. The soundtrack was done by American Bill Conti, who had given us “Gonna Fly Now”, the stirring theme from 1977’s “Rocky”. 1985’s “A View to a Kill” was 57-year-old Roger Moore’s last go-’round as the MI6 agent and this film’s theme gave Bond his biggest chart success. In the early ’80’s, England’s Duran Duran were hugely popular. The band’s bassist, John Taylor, approached Bond producer ‘Cubby’ Broccoli at a party and drunkenly asked when ‘Cubby’ was going to “get a decent band to do a theme”. This unlikely beginning led to Duran Duran being paired with John Barry and the result was the title track. The song was nominated for a Golden Globe and went to #1 in the US and many other countries. Bond went through a transition period after Moore left the role. Timothy Dalton starred in two films in the late 1980’s and the highlight of his tenure is undoubtedly the theme to his second outing, “Licence to Kill”. Sung by the greatest female voice in soul and R&B, Gladys Knight, the song borrows the horn line from “Goldfinger” and Gladys – a rare American Bond theme vocalist – puts her indelible stamp on the tune that was a Top Ten hit in the UK. It is the longest Bond theme song – of course, a song this good is never long enough.

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“Live and Let Die” soundtrack album cover (1973)

Super-handsome Irishman Pierce Brosnan successfully ushered James Bond into the modern era of film making with the excellent “GoldenEye”. For this film, the producers scored the services of U2’s Bono and the Edge who wrote the title song for Tina Turner – giving us the rarity of back-to-back African American female theme singers. The film was partially advertised as being the “new era” of Bond, which indeed it was. Interesting to note that this new generation of Bond theme composers utilized the lyric “you’ll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child”, as if Bono and the Edge are recalling watching Bond in a darkened theater in their youth. I love Pierce Brosnan. Unfortunately, the direction the franchise took during his tenure was a poor one. The films became overly sensational and needed a reset; similar to the one that took place with “For Your Eyes Only” after the space exploits seen in “Moonraker”. The themes of the Brosnan films also suffered a downward spiral after “GoldenEye”. Perhaps it was their decision to go with American artists. History has shown that the themes seem to go over better in the hands of artists from the UK. All of the Brosnan themes are performed by American women save for “The World is Not Enough”, which was sung by the Scottish female lead singer of the American band Garbage. Their name says it all.

The franchise was reset once again with Daniel Craig’s introduction in 2006’s “Casino Royale”. During this era, film music composer David Arnold cemented himself as the new ‘John Barry’ of the franchise. “Casino Royale” was Arnold’s fourth Bond film. The grittiness of Craig’s ‘blunt instrument’ take on the character was mirrored in Chris Cornell’s pounding theme, “You Know My Name”. Cornell became the first American male to perform a Bond theme and, to date, his theme is the only one performed solo by an American male. Another American male, Jack White, teamed with Alicia Keys to perform the theme to the next Bond film, “Quantum of Solace”, “Another Way to Die”. The first duet in Bond film history, this great tune features White’s trademark grinding fuzz. Just when you thought the Yankees were taking over Bond themes – and the themes were going to have different titles than the films – in comes England’s Adele with the theme to “Skyfall”. Adele’s excellent theme continued the trend of hearkening back to dramatic Bond themes of old in part by utilizing a 77-piece orchestra. “Skyfall” became perhaps the most successful Bond theme to date as it won a Golden Globe, a Grammy and – the most coveted prize – the Academy Award. This pattern was continued with the theme from the next film, “Spectre”. English singer Sam Smith wrote and recorded “Writing’s on the Wall”. Smith utilizes his falsetto which makes this track the audio opposite of the virile style of Tom Jones. On first listen, the song seems very understated and inaccessible. But it tends to grow on you and it’s ominous chords in the true John Barry style put one in mind of “From Russia, With Love”, which makes it at once nostalgic while still being contemporary. While it was not the hit single that “Skyfall” had been, it garnered the Golden Globe and became the second consecutive Bond theme to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

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Adele’s “Skyfall” single art (2012)

As of this writing, the themes to James Bond films seem to be in good hands. A return to artists from the UK and the compositions utilizing orchestras and striving for a cutting edge yet timeless, and even nostalgic aura make for some quality recordings. Rumour has it, though, that Beyonce has been tapped to perform the next theme. Hopefully, that won’t undo some of the progress of the last few films. In the final tally, we’ve had 13 artists from the UK and 10 Americans (“The Living Daylights” was performed by Norway’s A-ha). Also, we’ve had 14 female theme artists and 7 male. One was a duet and two were instrumentals. So, after all this jabbering, what are the Top Ten James Bond Theme Songs? Glad you asked….

10. “A View to a Kill” – Duran Duran (1985) — Written by Duran Duran and John Barry. Only Bond theme to reach #1 in the US. Nominated for Golden Globe. Excellent tune. Catchy and upbeat.

9. “Another Way to Die” (from “Quantum of Solace”) – Jack White and Alicia Keys (2008) — Only Bond theme done as a duet. Nominated for a Grammy. Despite receiving generally negative criticism, this tune and the previous film’s theme both are indicative of the new era of Bond films and fit well with Daniel Craig’s grim, blunt, violent take on the role.

8. “Goldfinger” – Shirley Bassey (1964) — Top Ten in the US. #53 on AFI’s list of the Top 100 movie songs. Despite my dislike of Bassey’s voice and singing style, the song must rank high here if only for it’s iconic status in the Bond Music canon. In many ways, it is the Bond theme that started it all.

7. “For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton (1981) — Co-written by Bill Conti. Top Ten in US and UK. Nominated for Oscar. Just a nice, classy ballad. It sounds like 1981 but not really in a bad way. I like Sheena Easton. She was Sonny Crockett’s wife on “Miami Vice”.

6. “Nobody Does It Better” (from “The Spy Who Loved Me”) – Carly Simon (1977) — First Bond theme to be titled differently from the film since “Dr. No”. Top Ten in US and UK. Nominated for Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy. #67 on AFI’s Top 100 movie songs list. I love the sound of a piano and this one has some great piano playing, particularly to open the tune. The coda of the song is an example of excellent orchestrating and arranging. Carly singing “sweet baby you’re the best” over the wonderful scoring of the strings and horns is a treat for the ears.

5. “GoldenEye” – Tina Turner (1995) — Top Ten throughout Europe and the UK. Bond enjoyed his first successful ‘reset’ since 1973 and this charismatic theme was a part of that. Written by Bono and the Edge, it was the perfect first theme for the new era. Fantastic, dramatic song. Ominous and dark in the best John Barry tradition.

4. “Licence to Kill” – Gladys Knight (1989) — Interesting how I’ve talked about how artists from the UK seem better suited to perform Bond themes and yet four of my top ten are by Americans. Top Ten in the UK. Most of the appeal here is the sublime voice of Gladys Knight. The song could actually function as simply a ‘song’, apart from the world of Bond. I love the key change near the end as it adds emotion.

3. “Skyfall” – Adele (2012) — Most successful Bond theme to date. First theme to win the Oscar and also copped the Golden Globe and a Grammy. #1 on the charts in several countries around the world. Co-written by Adele, the song definitely benefits from her extraordinary voice. She could sing the phone book and it would be enchanting. But the very best thing about this theme is it’s acknowledgment of past themes. It maintains a modern sound but also contains ‘Bond-esque’ musical cues and simply sounds to the listener like a ‘Bond theme’. The accompaniment of a full orchestra certainly helps this cause, something that Sam Smith will emulate with the next Bond theme.

2. “Live and Let Die” – Paul McCartney and Wings (1973) — Absolutely stunning. The introduction of Roger Moore as Bond was accompanied by the first rock song to be used as a theme. At the time, it became the most successful Bond theme ever, reaching number 2 on the American charts and #9 in the UK. The first Bond theme to be nominated for an Academy Award. The thing that makes this song so great is the same thing that makes the Beatles so listenable. Sir Paul McCartney is such a song craftsman and when he marries that ability to the orchestral genius of Sir George Martin, magic appears. McCartney’s song is hip, cool and contemporary and then the orchestral score that Martin provided for his ensemble – the driving orchestra break – sends this over the top. It is a high-speed thrill ride. Martin adds rock guitar to these timeless classical instruments and comes up with a sinister sonic force. Exhilarating.

1. “James Bond Theme” (from “Dr. No”) – John Barry and Orchestra (1962) — Some find it hard to consider this a “James Bond theme” but it was the theme to the first film, “Dr. No”, and then became the character’s theme; which makes it even cooler. I can’t say anymore about this iconic piece of music than I – or rather David Arnold – have said above. Suffice it to say that it is one of the most recognizable pieces of music in history. Some may say that with the Daniel Craig films the “James Bond Theme” is no longer used or it has been replaced with other pieces of music but consider this: the arc of the Craig films is the origin of Bond as a “00” agent so really he hasn’t ‘earned’ his theme yet. However, you can hear snippets of it in Craig’s “Casino Royale” during action scenes or when Bond is doing something particularly ‘Bond-y’. You’ll also hear it during the closing credits of these films. You’ll notice at the end of “Skyfall” that the franchise has officially been reset with M and Moneypenny in place and Bond ready to function as the agent that we all grew up with. Then, once we’re ready to ‘start fresh’ at the beginning of “Spectre”, that film starts ‘where we came in’; Bond in the gun barrel with his “James Bond Theme” playing.

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JAMES BOND WILL RETURN…
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Paying the Bills

We lost “country singer” Glen Campbell recently. Glen was “known” for his hits “Wichita Lineman”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Rhinestone Cowboy”. He was also known, unfortunately, for his struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease and for the “farewell tour” of recordings he’d been on since his diagnosis. His last album was called “Adios”. Perfect. It got me thinking of the unique situation he was in at the end of his career and life. He knew it was over and acted accordingly. One of the many terrible things about a terminal disease is the knowledge that death is coming and coming soon. While this is an incredibly horrific burden to bear for all involved, it opens interesting possibilities for the artist. If memory serves, Warren Zevon faced a similar situation. Diagnosed with cancer, Zevon rejected treatment that may have incapacitated him and instead focused on making a final album. The album featured many guest appearances and the recording sessions were documented by VH1. Notwithstanding the quality of the album, sentiments were high and the record charted and was nominated for five Grammys, winning two – the first of Zevon’s career. Country singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood was diagnosed with renal cancer and also went into the studio one last time. Zevon and Hazlewood shared a persona in that they neither cared one iota what the ‘hit parade’ may look like at any time in history but instead went with their guts, sometimes producing music that was inaccessible to the general public but was embraced by the industry, by critics and by the more discerning record buyer. Hazelwood’s final album was a completely different scenario to Zevon’s. Lee’s record featured zero celebrity guest stars and enjoyed zero chart activity or Grammy noms. But it was “Hazelwood” right down to the core and he was able to go out on his own terms.

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Glen Campbell’s last album was released two months before he died. It went to #7 on the US Country charts and #2 in the UK.

Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while he was recording what would be his third last album, “Ghost on the Canvas”. He and his producers finished the album with the thinking that it would be his last. He embarked on a farewell tour announcing his diagnosis beforehand so fans would know what was up if things went wrong on stage. Glen was able to record two more albums. “See You There” is a startling testament. Glen revisits old hits and, to me, the strength of his voice is remarkable. Jimmy Webb’s “Postcards from Paris” from this album is one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard. “Adios” – his aptly titled final album – features a less vibrant sounding Glen joined by Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. The thing, though, that I always think of when I think of Glen Campbell is his reputation as a guitar virtuoso. When I was young and first heard this I found it hard to reconcile with the guy who hosted “Glen Campbell’s Good Time Hour” and sang “Rhinestone Cowboy”.

I first heard of Glen Campbell through the Beach Boys. I fell in love with Brian Wilson and his band when I was 12 years old.  Those who know will know that Brian left the touring band at the end of the seminal year 1964 to focus on songwriting and production and was replaced by Campbell. When I was a kid and read this it was a real head-scratcher: “what is Rhinestone Cowboy country guy doing in the Beach Boys?”. Fact is, Glen had already played on many Beach Boys hits as part of the famed ‘Wrecking Crew’. This was a crack group of session musicians that were used extensively in the Los Angeles area at the time. They deserve their own post as a case could be made that they played on almost EVERY significant artists’ songs throughout the 1960’s. The Wrecking Crew boasted excellent guitar players, one of which was Glen. The thing about being a session musician was you had to be good. Very good. You had to be able to translate an artist’s thoughts and ideas. You had to give voice to the directions and demands of producers who were looking for a particular sound. In this environment Glen Campbell became one of the best, one of the most respected and sought after musicians on the West coast. So it actually made perfect sense that he would replace Brian on the road, singing and playing bass at several shows at the end of 1964 and into the new year. Glen – and his fellow session musicians – were often called upon to be part of a “band” that had been created by an inspired record producer with an original idea.

By the late ’60’s, Glen Campbell was a good, ol’ boy from Arkansas who found himself the most technically proficient and the most in demand guitar player in Los Angeles. A virtuoso, adept at any and all types of music but with country in his soul. He chose to leave the comforts of the lucrative studio life and become a country music recording artist. This career path makes him unique, to come from the ranks of session musicians to strike out on his own and be successful. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of a performer taking this path. Sheryl Crow, I know, was a back-up singer before making her own records. Now Glen becomes very popular and successful as a country artist, scoring hits with “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. The general public has no way of knowing of his considerable ability on the guitar. He is, after all, ‘just’ a country singer. While his records didn’t call for it, in concert he was able to show off his incredible skill and YouTube videos can attest that he would often really cut loose in a live performance. Campbell is maybe first in a line of virtuoso guitarists that became popular as singers and personalities that were not necessarily known for their guitar playing prowess. Prince and Keith Urban come to mind. The kind of music they became popular for performing did not necessarily require or feature amazing guitar playing. But when unleashing a blistering solo was called for, all three could deliver. I always imagine people leaving a Glen Campbell show and being amazed that he could play like that. “Why doesn’t he do more of that?!” they may have asked. He didn’t because that was not what paid the bills.

This got me thinking of the many talented people throughout the years that have adopted a persona because it is acceptable and lucrative even though they would much rather be doing something else. The Hollywood studio system during the Golden Age is perhaps where this phenomenon originated. Typecasting was common and if you were an actor who had success in comedies, you made comedies or if you looked like the ‘wise father-type’, you played wise fathers. You can find many examples of this throughout history. Sometimes, it will be like Glen Campbell’s case; he was REALLY GOOD at something other than what he was known for. Other times, it will simply be a case of paying the bills – ‘this is what they know me as and they will pay to see me do this. They won’t pay to see me do what I really want to do’. Think Michael Jordan playing baseball.

People of a certain age will remember Roy Clark. Clark co-hosted a popular country and western-themed variety/comedy show throughout the 1970’s called “Hee Haw”. Roy was an affable country boy who picked and sang and acted in comedy sketches on this immensely popular show that lasted an astounding 23 seasons. Everybody knew Roy Clark as “the host of ‘Hee Haw'”. But Roy was possessed of a skill on stringed instruments that, while largely unknown, was substantial. His abilities on the violin, the banjo and on classical guitar have made him an enormous influence on generations of bluegrass and country musicians. Case in point: to see him play “Malaguena” on an episode of “The Odd Couple” is startling.

The aforementioned Brian Wilson is an interesting example of this phenomenon. As a young man, Brian had aspirations to become another Phil Spector: to be a producer of multiple acts, to have his own stable. In order to get on his feet in the music business, he formed a band with his brothers and cousin that hitched it’s wagon to the surf music trend of the early 1960’s. Unfortunately, the Beach Boys became exceedingly popular and Brian suddenly found himself trapped as the bass player of a surf band. It took mountains moving to even excuse him from tedious life on the road and he was finally able to stay at home and write and produce music; some of the greatest American music ever made. But his reputation was never able to soar above the apparent simplicity of the songs his band put out. Only those who really knew understood his genius and appreciated the harmonic complexity of his work. In keeping with the Beach Boys, both of Brian’s brothers – Carl and Dennis – put out solo records during their decades-long tenures with the band. They also could not emerge from the long shadows and – after exercising their creativity outside the fold – they realized that they had to ‘pay the bills’ – and this meant returning to the band and continuing to be ‘Beach Boys’.

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The record company wanted Brian Wilson to just stay a “Beach Boy”. But he couldn’t help being a genius.

Along the same lines you have another legendary band from the 1960’s, The Monkees. Originally, the four boys had signed on to be on a TV show – not in a band. The show lasted only two years but the band as a musical entity continued to enjoy popularity after the show ended. Eventually, all four members became proficient musicians and wanted to operate as such and they eventually released albums utilizing their own talents. Then, later on, each had a desire to make their own records – to be solo acts. There must have been times – and this has happened with many bands – when each member had written a song they were proud of. They would have loved to have gone into the studio, recorded the song and maybe nine others for an album, released it and toured behind it and promoted it on television talk shows. But the chances of the public buying a record by Peter Tork were low. One by “The Monkees”? Much higher. Therefore, they had to hang on to their songs and wait until the next “Monkees” project could be put together. Another variation of this can be seen in the case of the Grass Roots. An excellent pop/rock band of the late ’60’s, the Grass Roots employed a horn section which set them apart at the time. The band was actually created by producers P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. The famous Wrecking Crew studio band played on the original songs backing up the vocals of Sloan. When one of these early songs – “Where Were You When I Needed You?” – became a hit, Sloan and Barri had to find an actual band that would become “The Grass Roots”. The “band” went through three incarnations during their hit years. Each time, the producers found an existing band who were not ‘paying the bills’ very well under their own steam and would agree to forego their identity and take up the already-popular moniker – become “The Grass Roots” – and record high quality material in a polished and professional environment. Twice the enlisted bands bristled under the strict direction they were getting and went back to doing things themselves. Interestingly, throughout “The Grass Roots”‘s existence, even with all the changing personnel and the fabricated nature of the proceedings, they put out great songs and had chart success.

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The Monkees were labelled “phony” for not playing their own instruments. The same was the case, though, with many other groups.

Tom Jones is another great example. Like most men of his age from the UK, Jones was a huge fan of American blues, r&b and rock ‘n’ roll. When he started out in the business, that’s the kind of music he sang. He was basically a white Wilson Pickett. As he began to become popular, managers and agents became involved. Part of their jobs was to find their clients (who generally didn’t write their own songs) quality material to record. Tom’s handlers came across “It’s Not Unusual”, a song they thought would suit him well. Tom wasn’t so sure. He was a ‘shouter’, after all and this track they wanted him to do was not that. It was very middle-of-the-road and horn-based; not the bleating saxes he was used to but popping trumpets. But, of course, he did it and, of course, it was a huge, international success. His people began to bring him more of the same – and country and western. Next thing you know he is extremely popular but he is not recording the type of music he really wants to. He’s not being the type of singer he really is. Then the money and stardom that Las Vegas in the 1970’s can provide is offered to him and he accepts. Now he’s really not Wilson Pickett. But he’s paying the bills. Which brings to mind what you hear from a lot of singers, usually white males. ‘I love rhythm and blues, I love Elvis Presley, I love Jackie Wilson and all the old singers’ – but what these white males record and have success with is nowhere near what purists would call “rhythm and blues”.

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Tommy Woodward from Wales may have been the original blue-eyed soul blues belter. Until a worldwide smash hit came along.

Speaking of Elvis Presley, he and Sam Cooke both wanted nothing more than to be gospel singers. They both, basically, had to compromise. They both became legends in their respective fields – rock ‘n’ roll and soul – and both lovingly recorded some gospel music throughout their careers, albeit ‘on the side’. I’ve always loved the film “The Fabulous Baker Boys”. Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges portray Jack and Frank Baker, two legends of the piano bar circuit. After umpteen years of this however, Jeff’s character, Jack, is fed up. He has always loved jazz and plays it anonymously in small clubs every chance he gets. As time goes on, he becomes more and more disillusioned with ‘paying the bills’ by playing music he hates while continually putting his jazz dreams on hold. He’s making money playing “Feelings”. He won’t make much playing “‘Round Midnight” in smoky clubs but that’s what he decides he needs.

Speaking of jazzbos, Charlie Watts is a fascinating example of a guy who’s been ‘paying the bills’ for almost 60 years. The legendary drummer of “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” – the Rolling Stones – is a jazz man at heart. As an aside, the man is also a graphic artist and has designed many of the album covers and stage set-ups the band has used over the years. Wikipedia states it plainly and, I think, comically: “Although he has made his name in rock, his personal tastes lie principally in jazz”. Which is very not rock. The guy’s been considered one of the top 12 rock drummers ever and he doesn’t even like it all that much! As early as the late 1970’s, he has put together jazz ensembles for live performance and for recordings. He has put out jazz records with “The Charlie Watts Quintet” and “The Charlie Watts Tentet”. Those of you who have ever seen him play with the Stones in concert or video will know that he always looks like he’s embarrassed or he’d rather be 100 miles away from Mick as he prances and Keith as he twitches and stumbles. Watts has stayed faithful – faithful – to his wife of 53 years, abused alcohol for only three years in the 1980’s, sketches every hotel room he’s ever stayed in, beat throat cancer which showed up 20 years after he quit smoking, has showed up for years on Best Dressed lists and now lives in a rural village in England and raises horses with his wife. He is one sedate cat who just happens to play drums for maybe the wildest band in history. Hey, it pays the bills.

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The very chill jazzbo, Charlie Watts. Surrounded by madmen.

As Long as I’m Singin’!

Hard to believe that at one time singers were considered second-class citizens in the music business and it was the bands or orchestras that enjoyed the spotlight. Case in point is the legendary true story of the rise of Frank Sinatra. In 1942, Tommy Dorsey had the second biggest orchestra in the world (Glenn Miller’s outfit was tops) and Frank was his “boy singer”. Dorsey had reeds, brass a rhythm section and singers; boy, girl and group. Sinatra, never lacking in confidence, tired of being part of the ‘factory’ and announced he wanted to go out on his own as a soloist. Well, that just wasn’t done. It was thought that without the powerful name of a bandleader behind you success would prove elusive.

Indeed, before this, successful pop singing vocalists you could count on one hand. Let’s start at the beginning with Al Jolson. Surely you could point to singers that predate him – Enrico Caruso comes to mind – but for our purposes here we’ll stick to singers of popular songs – pop singers. And when it comes to singers at the dawn of the era of recorded sound you have to start with Jolson. As I used to always tell my kids: he was born Asa Yoelson. He was a Lithuanian Jew. Jolson had a unique voice and a unique projection style necessitated by the fact that most halls of the time had no public address system. Jolson, therefore, had to sing to the back rows. Jolson was basically the blueprint for ‘star’: recordings, public performances and eventually films. Jolson holds many distinctions one of which was appearing in the first ‘talking picture’. (The first line? “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” Natch.) Others appearing at this time include Russ Columbo and Rudy Vallee, the former dying young in his prime from a gunshot wound to the head and the latter enjoying a lengthy career in Hollywood. Which brings us up to Harry Lillis Crosby. Bing, to you. Hard to sum up the ‘Crosby phenomenon’ in a few lines. Certainly he revolutionized the art of “mic singing”, using the new technology of amplification and microphones to convey intimacy in his recordings, public appearances and radio performances. It’s always hard to think of anything in it’s original context when it’s become so iconic but Bing’s style and personality were revolutionary. Into the 1950’s, Bing Crosby was perhaps the most successful and legendary performer in the entertainment world. His influence was widespread and landed in no small amount on the skinny shoulders of Sinatra of Hoboken. It terms of sheer grandeur, universal success and historical significance, Bing and Frank (and Louis Armstrong) stand alone. Sinatra’s legend has grown beyond his abilities as a singer or his weight as a Hollywood player. He has come to mean so much more. As the late ’40’s gave way to the ’50’s, a small handful of vocalists cemented their reputations as the best in the business. This short list includes Mel Torme. A supreme craftsman, he also possessed one the best nicknames in entertainment history: the Velvet Fog. And on the ladies side, you would have to cut it down the middle with Ella Fitzgerald on one side and Billie Holiday on the other. And for sheer artistry, longevity and versatility, Judy Garland finishes our short list.

Things definitely changed in the mid-to-late 1950’s with the rise of rhythm and blues and everyone’s favourite ex-truck driver from Tupelo. The Great American Songbook and the art of popular singing had to make room for new styles and new methods of “putting a song over”. Elvis Presley and other rock ‘n’ roll singers captivated listeners not always only with their pure tones and flawless diction but with the right emphasis on the right syllables and a well placed grunt or holler. And some just had a tone that sounded masculine, virile, ‘cool’. Voices began to emerge that would sound great just singing the phone book. I suggest you look into Lou Rawls, Dennis Morton of the Temptations, Wilson Pickett and, later, Al Green. Specific examples I can recommend include Billy Stewart’s take on “Summertime” and the Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time”. Vocals that are simply a joy to listen to.  

 

Pop song craft did not disappear in the rock ‘n’ roll era, however. You can hear this in some performers desire to sing well as opposed to letting a unique style sell their songs. There are some great examples from this era of the “perfectly held note”: when a vocalist goes to a place and it can sound just like a bell. Breath control and purity of pitch are some vital ingredients to achieve this. To illustrate, I encourage you to listen to “Cara Mia” by Jay and the Americans with Jay Black on lead. 

And here are some great examples of “the Big Finish”: “Samba de Avio” by Tony Bennett, “Blues in the Night” by Rosemary Clooney, “Shangri-La” by Wayne Newton, “Speak Softly Love” by Andy Williams and Bobby Darin’s version of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, which was inexplicably unreleased until 30 years after it’s recording. I mention Wayne Newton: yes, his voice has an odd tone but the cat could flat-out swing. His sense of rhythm is undeniable.

The “perfectly held note” brings to mind the use of vibrato, the ‘wobbly’ sound a singer will use when sustaining a note. You’ll have heard this from senior citizen ladies singing in church but also in the voices of Lorne Greene, Marilyn Monroe and some of Elvis Presley’s early ’70’s recordings. This sound can easily get on your nerves. What you need is a singer like the great Tom Jones who often will sustain the note for a time before bringing in the vibrato to ‘finish his thought’. Listen to him hit the last note of “‘Til”.

Then there is the “holler”. As Little Richard will tell you, he was a master at the holler: a jubilant, wordless exclamation that can add excitement and punctuate verses and choruses. Little Richard did not invented this, however, since such moans and groans and ‘Lawd, have mercy”s can be heard in blues and early rhythm and blues songs. But I suggest you listen to ANY of Little Richard’s seminal ’50’s recordings to hear great examples of this. Others include “Wolly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” by Stevie Wonder, Eric Burdon delivers one of the best in the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, Mike Nesmith delivers a couple of good ones in the Monkees’ “Circle Sky”. Into the seventies, check out King Floyd’s “Groove Me” or Joe Tex and “I Gotcha”. One of the best is Roger Daltrey’s lung-buster in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Chris Robinson carries on the tradition as front man of the Black Crowes – check out their song “Remedy”. But the mother of them all – the “Stairway to Heaven” of the ‘holler song’ – is Edwin Starr’s “War”. His well-placed grunts and exclamations are a huge part of what makes this track so listenable. Indeed, they seem a part of the lyrics.

But what of the other side of the coin? What about terrible singers? I know what you’re thinking: a bad singer can’t have a career, right? I say, yes. You say: but it’s all subjective. I agree. And disagree. This hurts me to say because I love Jan and Dean but I have a real problem with Jan Berry’s voice. Funny considering they are basically a vocal duo. But listen to “You Really Know How to Hurt a Guy” and see what you think.

In Jan’s case, and in others, it doesn’t matter what the singer sounds like. And if you look into some lousy male singers they all seem to have ‘other stuff’ going on that make the actual quality of their voices moot. Take Jimi Hendrix: plain voice but who cares with that guitar work? Bob Dylan’s one of the VERY few artists in history who have gone beyond being just a legendary recording artist. He long ago established himself as an iconic contributor to history, culture and society at large. His singing voice has never been ‘pretty’ but it certainly always seems to fit his lyrics and songs. The same could be said for Neil Young’s voice. He also had ‘something to say’ and said it in such a way that the quality of his singing doesn’t factor in and never did. Listen to Geddy Lee of Rush. Few bands have a more devoted fan base than Rush. Few bands have such an insightful, creative and intelligent lyricist as drummer Neil Peart. The trio – add Alex Lifeson on guitar – displays such startling musicianship that the fact that Lee sings ‘less than well’ is almost unnoticeable. The best example of this has to be my main man Tom Waits. Early in his career, his singing voice was just unremarkable and proved a good instrument for his barroom fables. But as his career progressed, his voice took on a violent, rasping growl that made it sound like he gargles with crushed glass. But his songs – and his persona – are unique and beautiful things. The world that he presents in his songs is a fascinating place to go. And sometimes the ravaged voice is a perfect vehicle to express emotion and heartbreak. Case in point is “Anywhere I Lay My Head”, the last track from his seminal “Rain Dogs”. The voice that sings “I don’t need anybody” sounds so utterly devastated, perfectly accentuating the irony of the line.

Call it sexist but it seems that when a woman sings poorly she just sucks. People here in Canada love Anne Murray but her voice has a tone that I can’t stand. Back in the day, I listened to an oldies station non-stop in my apartment. Friends would shrink in fear as I suddenly would leap across the room to turn the radio off at the first seconds of a Murray recording. Of Rita MacNeil I won’t even speak. I used to say that I would rather GO TO BED with Anne Murray than LISTEN to Rita MacNeil. I try to feel positively about Yoko Ono because of her place in history but that howl! The first time I heard Jessica Simpson sing was on one of her TV specials. I thought – seriously – that it was a comedy skit. No, she really sings that way. The biggest mystery of all is Kate Bush. I don’t even know what to say here. So, it seems you have to be a folkie or have a persona-based, create-your-own-world singing style to get away with singing lousy. You could never, for instance, be a crooner with a less-than-stellar voice which is what makes the success of Rod Stewart’s American Songbook recordings such a mystery. Rod’s voice – yesterday’s or today’s – needs to be shouting “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” instead of warbling “The Way You Look Tonight”.

Well, that’s all I have to say about that. The point of this post is not necessarily to tell you what’s good or bad but to turn you on to some coolness out there in the world of popular singing. As a last word, you should look into a guy named Michael Cunio. He sings with a group called Under the Streetlamp, a vocal group comprised of men who have sung in touring companies of “Jersey Boys”. If you like to hear someone just stand up there and sing, as I do, check this guy out.